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September 22, 2014

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Creator of MGM Grand’s lion, Johnson dies at 62

Snellen Maurice "Snell" Johnson, a convicted con man who 12 years ago changed the course of his life to become a sculptor whose works include the massive bronze lion in front of the MGM Grand, died Saturday in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 62.

"Snell Johnson certainly is talked about in very positive terms for his work as a post-modern and pop culture sculptor," said Robert Tracy, professor of art at UNLV. "His bronze lion outside the MGM is more acceptable as art than the MGM's old plaster lion. His lion has ties with film history, evoking the majesty of Leo (the MGM lion)."

Johnson's more than 500 bronze works -- 350 of which are life-size statues -- include horses, American Indians and other human figures. His works have been purchased by former President Ronald Reagan, late cowboy film legend Roy Rogers and former world heavyweight boxing champions George Foreman and Mike Tyson.

The MGM's "Grand Lion," created in 1997, is 45 feet tall, 50 feet wide and weighs 50 tons. It is said to be the largest bronze sculpture monument in the Western Hemisphere.

Johnson's other works include a bronze statue at the Stratosphere Tower and a massive horse and chariot at Caesars Gauteng, South Africa.

Johnson, a self-taught artist who is considered one of the most prolific sculptors of his time, had to overcome considerable adversity to attain his fame.

In 1979 he was convicted in federal court in Utah for providing false information while obtaining $117,000 in loans from a bank in Murray, Utah, according to a Salt Lake Tribune story.

Four years later, the news report says, Johnson was convicted on 30 counts of securities, wire and mail fraud for bilking investors in a satellite navigation company out of $2 million. He was sentenced to 25 years, but spent only five years in prison.

Johnson's life took a 180-degree turn after his release from prison when he resumed an art career that had begun when he was a boy. By 1999 Johnson was commissioned to create an 18-foot bronze clock in Salt Lake City to count down 1,000 days to the 2002 Winter Olympics. The piece was built in 30 days.

Of his many large works, Johnson said in a May 24, 1999, Associated Press story, "bigger and better -- it's just my personality."

His MGM lion in polished gold bronze is said to be the second largest bronze statue in the world. Only a Hong Kong Buddha that stands 90 feet reportedly is larger.

The MGM statue was commissioned following a revelation that the original MGM entrance attraction -- a huge lion head with its wide-open mouth serving as the doorway -- was considered bad luck by Asian gamblers who comprised much of the megaresort's high-roller clientele.

Johnson used a crew of 24 to build a Styrofoam prototype of the new statue. It was covered with 1,660 bronze panels. The work was shipped from Scottsdale to Las Vegas in 22 pieces and welded together on a 23,000-pound pedestal.

Other large works by Johnson, an Arizona resident since 1984, are prominently displayed around that state, including pieces at the Wyndham Hotel in Scottsdale, Harrah's Ak-Chin Casino near Phoenix and at the Superstition mall in Mesa. His big statues also adorn at least a dozen Indian reservations.

Johnson was born in Myton, Utah, in the heart of a Ute reservation and grew up in poverty. He said his family did not have electricity until he was 13 and his artwork was one of his few forms of entertainment. Although not an Indian, Johnson credited America's native people for strongly influencing his art.

Johnson studied at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, served on mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in his 20s and became an insurance salesman. During his art career, Johnson maintained studios in Deer Valley, Utah, and Scottsdale.

Johnson is survived by his wife, Mary; three sons, Snell Jr., Scott and Shawn; four daughters Sheri, Staci, Shantell and Shaylene; two stepchildren Michael and Kimberly; and 12 grandchildren.

Services were Wednesday in Scottsdale.

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